sally ann williams

Cicada Innovations turns 20 this August. It’s a “deep-tech” melting pot that brings together researchers, industry and entrepreneurs working on projects that typically take many years, a good deal of investment and broad collaboration, to come to market. This is multi-year science and engineering-based innovation focused on genuine transformation in healthcare, energy and agriculture rather than the forms of “innovation” that involve a smartphone app knocked up over a wet weekend.

Former senior Google executive Sally-Ann Williams GAICD took on the role as Cicada CEO in 2019. She is clear about the connections, culture and community required for deep innovation success.

Based at the Australian Technology Park at Eveleigh in Sydney’s inner west, and originally called ATP Innovations, Cicada’s incubator hosts between 60 and 70 businesses at any one time, employing up to 450 people. Around half focus on medical technologies, about a quarter on agri-food innovation and health, a smaller cohort on energy — and then there are a handful of companies working on innovation across other areas.

Cicada is owned equally by the University of Technology, Sydney, University of NSW, University of Sydney and the Australian National University. It also has a close relationship with Main Sequence Ventures, the CSIRO innovation fund.

Connections

Chaired by Andrew Rothery, Cicada’s board comprises four directors with university links — Topaz Conway, Martin Lloyd, Kathryn Sunn, Fiona Nelms and Luke Deacon MAICD. Everyone has strong connections to Australia’s broader innovation ecosystem, which Williams regards as critically important. Although the universities are critical supports for Cicada, few of the companies it incubates have emerged from them.

“One of the fundamental things I believe is that great ideas can come from anywhere — the reality is that to bring them to market requires a community of people to engage and support them,” says Williams.

That’s where directors’ connections can help, she says — in making introductions to venture capitalists, university research teams, fellow startups, and enterprise partners.

Loop+ is a Cicada Innovations startup founded by two sisters who wanted to solve the problem their wheelchair-bound son/nephew faced with pressure sores. They developed a prototype intelligent pad that signals an alert when someone has been sitting in one position for too long.

This year, the company secured a $3.2m venture capital investment (including Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory’s first Australian investment) and is now working on clinical trials. “That’s an example of what we do. This is absolutely an ecosystem, no deep tech innovation is fully discovered, created and delivered in isolation. If you try to do it in isolation, it is more than likely going to fail,” warns Williams.

Capital

Cicada is financially self-sustaining, leasing space to startups, and running initiatives such as the medical device commercialisation training program for NSW Health as well as a series of Innovation Challenges for industry bodies. The companies it incubates benefit from Rothery’s experience and connections — from his time as founder and former executive chair of private equity firm Archer Capital and as former chair of the Australian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

Beyond an introduction to the nation’s money men and women, the challenge for deep tech companies in particular is the need for patient investors and shareholders who recognise that an increase in the value of their share is often far more important than a dividend.

Cicada is working on an economic impact report that should reveal not just the hip-pocket potential of deep tech startups, but the broader economic, often national ramifications. A med-tech company might, for example, commercialise a product or service that generates significant revenue for itself — but which has far broader financial ramifications for the national healthcare budget. This sort of innovation requires a more nuanced and long-term financial conversation than simply identifying the next unicorn (private company valued at $1b-plus), says Williams.

She references the famous John F Kennedy quote from a 1962 speech about space exploration — “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” — as the guiding light behind the deep tech innovation being undertaken by Cicada.

Culture

Williams stresses that successful innovation relies heavily on people and an open and transparent culture that empowers individuals to make suggestions and run experiments. That requires boards to have well-honed risk appetites and to be able to elevate their conversations beyond the operational to a far more strategic level.

“When you are trying to push forward with a big vision, you want that beautiful tension when people around the table push you to think differently and consider all the things you’ve missed,” says Williams. “If you are insecure as a CEO, that level of questioning from the board could make you feel uncomfortable... but if you frame it right, the board should push the CEO, and the CEO should push the board. It’s a delicate dance, but if you get it right — something on the table that is good — when you walk away, it is brilliant.”

Innovation diversity

When it comes to thinking outside the box, working alongside a broad range of innovators really helps. The Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast is located on the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) campus. It was established in 2002 and now works with 280 companies that have contributed more than $60m to regional projects, creating more than 1100 jobs. Among companies working from the hub are:

USC Seaweed Research Group

Pink seaweed that can stop cows from burping methane is being primed for mass farming by researchers at the USC. Seaweed Research Group leader associate professor Nick Paul says if enough Asparagopsis seaweed can be grown for every cow in Australia, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by 10 per cent. The team is researching how to scale up production for a global business.

Strucket

Kelly Lavery, a mother of three children, came up with the idea for self-straining buckets for soaking her child’s nappies. The 19L bucket’s inbuilt strainer allows items to be drained without the need to touch the dirty water. More than 12,000 of the $60 buckets, which are made in Australia, have been sold since their launch in 2018. 

Stymie

Former teacher Rachel Downie founded Stymie in 2014 to provide schoolchildren with an encrypted anonymous app they can use to report bullying without fear of repercussions. Downie, 2020 Queensland Australian of the Year, has rolled out the service to 300 schools in Australia and New Zealand. Once a student makes a notification, Stymie informs the school, which can respond according to its wellbeing policies. She says studies estimate one in four children is bullied at school every day. 

Servatus

Pharmaceutical research company Servatus started operating from the Sunshine Coast Innovation centre in 2013 and is about to open a new biotech production and research facility at Coolum. Among its projects is research into new auto-immune drugs for rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Servatus reports that in 2017, three of the top 10 drugs globally were for the treatment of autoimmune diseases. 

Sunny Street

This mobile health clinic was set up by nurse Sonia Goodwin MAICD and Dr Nova Evans MAICD in 2018. The social enterprise offers healthcare to individuals and families who are homeless or vulnerable. This year the organisation will go national.